Levelling Up: You can’t unhear that next level of quality

I like watches. I’ve always had an interest in taking things apart, understanding how they work, and learning about the history of how things develop.

One of the earliest non-fiction books I ever read in earnest was called Longitude. This is all about the man who invented the first accurate chronometer for use at sea, to help guide ships on long distance voyages.

As it happens, in the countryside area of Southwell nearby, there is the British Horological Society. This has huge numbers of watches, clocks, chronometers, and all manner of time-keeping devices.

In one of the rooms, they have scaled-up models of components inside wrist-watches. Each of the models tracks the history of certain technological developments that levelled up watch making.

The Escapement

Just one of the many technological marvels that goes into watches is called the escapement. The escapement is a mechnical system that regulates release of mechanical energy from the wound spring that powers the watch. This escapement regulates the release of that energy into the system of gears that turn the hands in a precise and regular way, advancing the hands around the clock to indicate the time.

Improvements in this piece of technology makes the device more energy efficient, more accurate, easier to set-up, build, etc.

But the escapement has gone through dozens of technological improvements over the years. The lever escapement in particular was a huge leap forward in watch making. In fact, even as recently as the 1970s/1980s, renowned British watchmaker George Daniels developed the coaxial escapement, which presented yet another huge leap forward.

As each technological development occurred, a new echelon of performance and quality was defined.

Every manufacturer needed to brush up on the next level of technology, and implement it across all of their designs. The higher level of quality and performance was inherently self-evident, and it was inescapable that everything needed to measure up to that standard. Once that bell has been rung, it cannot be unrung.

This story is true across countless other technological fields – mobile phones, tablets, laptops, etc. When Apple launched the Macbook Air, the response was incredible – as it was stored inside a plain manila envelope. This was unheard of prior, yet it heralded in the era of super-slim devices we now all take for granted.

Skills = technology

In a sense, technology and improvements thereto are no different to skill development. The more advanced our skillset, the more we can get done for less effort, and to a higher standard. So let’s take this mindset of levelling up technology to something like our own jobs.

Think about your own workflow at work. Try and recall how inefficient and slow you were at your job on the first day you started (as we all were). Then notice the level you are at now. However long you’ve been doing your job, you should be able to recognise there were key turning points at which you transcended one level of ability and rose to the next rung up. This is normal skill development, and we each ‘level up’ our processes and abilities.

Once we do even just one piece of work that stands head and shoulders above everything we’ve done before, that piece of work becomes the new de facto standard to which we aim to rise. We latch onto that higher standard, rightly so, and ask the relevant questions of ourselves…

Wait a minute, how did I do that? What made that piece of work so much better? What did I do differently to last time? How can we recreate that and make it the default standard?

In the same way, there are levels we rise to with our voices. The technical developments we make in our voices lead to profound quality improvements, but every so often, we’ll level up. It won’t just be a “general improvement”, there’ll be a ‘levelling up’. We’ll hear just one moment – maybe a single note or a single line in a song – where the quality is self-evident as being in a league above where we have sung up til that moment. And the same questions should be asked…

Wait a minute, how did I do that? What made that sound so much better? What did I do differently to last time? How can I recreate that and make it the default standard?

Levelling up takes time

This is as much about ear training as it is about vocal training. It’s not about just forcing out a higher note or styling more, it’s about being skilled enough to both generate a higher quality vocal tone, AND being able to aurally discern that as a cut above where we were before. This takes time, and often takes some checking to be certain we’re going down the right road, and not a shiny cul-de-sac.

Levelling up also takes patience and time. It’s not something that can be shortcutted. It’s about building up a vast body of hours of practice doing it right (and just-so), to arrive at that next level up. Forcing the issue never works, it will only get use there slower. But like with the technological analogies above, once we hear that next level of quality, we can’t unhear it. However fleeting that higher level of sound may be, once we hear it, we’ve got to go after it.

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